Published on

July 25, 2022

Atomic Skills Mapping: A Revolution for Corporate Learning

David Middelbeck photo

David Middelbeck

Managing Director


Learning Hub

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Traditional City Maps

Traditional City Maps

The need for advanced skill maps and a common notation for structuring skills at work is greater than ever before. However, the one-size-fits-all approach to learning still leaves most learners, teams, and organizations in the dark. In addition to answering the question of what Google Maps and learning have in common, we will discuss why most skill taxonomies and competency maps are flawed and why a skill mapping revolution needs to take place to enable more personalized, engaging and measurable learning in organizations.

What Google Maps can tell us about the future of skills development 

I was recently looking through a photo album of my family's summer vacations when I was young. We used to go to the south of France. If you've ever been there, you probably know: visiting France is almost impossible without somehow being forced to use the crazy highways around Paris. We always got lost. We circled Paris three times before we finally found the right exit. I was still quite young, but I clearly remember the endless stacks of paper maps on our passenger seat: each map with a different resolution, purpose, notation, and by a different author. Often we could not even locate ourselves on the map, let alone know where we were going or where to get off. Most of the time I was asleep and did not remember how my parents managed to get out of it, but I am sure I spent dozens of hours of my young life wandering around Parisian highways …

Just 20 years later, life (and traveling) has changed radically. Modern mapping and navigation systems have caused a massive revolution and changed the way we move from one place to another. Paper maps suddenly disappeared as three revolutions occurred almost simultaneously:

  1. A Mapping Revolution (introduction of digital maps with a completely new level of detail).
  2. A Positioning Revolution (introduction of GPS, which finds your position to within a few meters, instead of you having to search for street signs).
  3. A Navigation Revolution (allowing you to receive tailored, personalized instructions; even letting you choose the mode of transport).

What would you do today without Google Maps? There are some groundbreaking innovations that we now take so much for granted and can't remember how we lived without that we sometimes forget how incredibly recent they actually are.

The next mapping revolution is about skills

We'll see a new but very similar mapping revolution in the next 5 years. Just as disruptive. But this time, the mapping revolution won't be about traffic. It will be about learning and education. It won't be a geo-mapping revolution. 

It will be a skill mapping revolution.

Today, many talent, L&D, and skill management functions still navigate skills the way my family navigated Paris 20 years ago with paper maps: unguided, at a wrong level of detail, without knowing our own position, and with inconsistent, incompatible definitions of what a skill actually is (and how it compares to competency maps, for example). Yet the need for advanced skill maps and a notation for structuring skills at work is greater today than ever before.

Here's why.

  • Good skill maps are needed for strategic skill and talent management. "Do we have the right skills to compete and succeed in the digital age?" is the key question at the top of every CEO's agenda today.
  • Good skill maps are needed to guide employees through the endless jungle of learning opportunities. How can I learn effectively if I do not know how learning activities relate to my goals? ("Do I go east or west to reach the Eiffel Tower?")
  • Good skill maps are needed to power the next generation of skill assessments. To use the Google Maps metaphor again: If you don't have a good map, your GPS position wouldn't be very helpful, would it? The smartest companies today are already using AI-based assessments to accurately position employees (for recruiting, learning, and strategic skill management) on their skill map.
  • Good skill maps are necessary to enable internal mobility. Jobs are changing faster than ever before. If you can't map people's skills to emerging new roles and projects internally, you miss out on huge opportunities. Or worse, your people will leave.
  • Good skill maps are needed for the next generation of skill intelligence. They are the foundation for competitive skill insights and keeping you ahead of your competitors' skills.
  • Good skill maps are needed to allow for skills-based reporting that finally makes sense attributing learning to business outcomes. ("How far did we walk across Paris today, and was that the fastest way?").

In short, your organization's skill map will be the foundational element for workforce development. It is the critical step for everything that comes after.

So what are companies doing wrong?

Most skill taxonomies and competency maps are broken

In recent years, some institutions have collected huge databases of skills, and grouped them into skill taxonomies. However, on closer examination, one can only conclude that these taxonomies are fundamentally flawed and cannot be used to guide learning and development (of course, they can and could be used for other purposes). 

The core problem with existing skill maps is that they lack actionability for specific learning and development.

It's like trying to navigate the highways in Paris with a map that only shows bike lanes.

Not exactly the best idea, is it?

A high-level skill map is like a city map without street names

Nowadays, most companies already have their competency models in place. Some in Excel, others already more deeply integrated into their HR systems. Can't we call this a skill map?


There are fundamental differences between competencies and skills. Competencies are a great tool for reflecting actual behavior (e.g., for performance management), but cannot be used to connect people with learning (perhaps I'll go into more detail in an upcoming blog post). Nevertheless, your competency map is a great foundation for creating your first skill map!

Almost every organization I've spoken with in the last few months is now starting to create a skill map, and often we help connect it to their existing competency frameworks. A typical skill map has a set of general dimensions that include both generic skills (e.g. soft skills, IT tool skills, etc.) and organization-specific skills (e.g. operating production machine XY). Sometimes these are subdivided into one or two additional levels of detail (e.g. "IT Tool Skills" is subdivided into "Microsoft Office" and these in turn are subdivided into "Excel" and "PowerPoint"). This type of high-level skill map is actually a great tool for framing your skill strategy (e.g., "everyone should have Excel skills", "we need more skills in dimension X and less in dimension Y"). It provides some general direction.

Current competency maps leave organizations in the dark

But what 90% of companies miss here is the link between the strategic level and actual learning delivery. The skill map stops at a level that is not actionable for the individual employee. These skills are just keywords. It's like a map without street names: It's impossible to determine where you are. And certainly does not help you to navigate Paris. Employees and management are in the dark. They're drowning in content that's loosely related to the keywords they defined on the strategic level (just try searching for "data analytics skills" on a platform of your choice...).

Imagine you want to improve your Excel skills because somewhere on your employer's skills map it says Excel. Of course you already know a little bit about Excel, your CV says "intermediate Excel skills". The problem is that there are literally thousands of online courses for "intermediate Excel skills"!

So which one do you choose?

Half the courses start with skills you already know, you get bored and drop out. The other half start a little too far ahead, you lack some basics about pivot tables, and again: you drop out. It's no surprise that the completion rate for courses offered by corporate learning & development department is less than 5%.

Introducing Atomic Learning: a new generation of skill maps

What employees and companies alike need is a new generation of skill mapping systems. A map on which they can literally zoom out (for strategic skill development questions) and zoom in (for specific skill assessments and finding the next skill you want to learn in your 30-minute lunch break). More detailed and actionable for learning and development than anything we see today. 

When we researched this with our team at edyoucated, we were surprised that we could not find a single solution on the market that met these criteria. It always stops at a superficial skill level, making it impossible to translate it into individual learning paths. Of course, we did not want to create our learning paths based on broken skill maps. 

So we had to develop a new system for mapping skills and competencies ourselves.

A visual representation of atomic skills

We developed this dynamic skill mapping system based on a fundamental paradigm we call Atomic Learning (it is closely related to the idea of mastery-based learning, but extends it with some additional elements and concepts). The basic idea of Atomic Learning is to break down a given topic step by step into its elementary building blocks, the smallest units of knowledge that can be learned individually (hence they are called "atoms"). Like the little LEGO building blocks you may remember from your childhood. A simple example of such an atom would be the "SUM formula in Microsoft Excel". It's clear that these skills can hardly be broken down further - and that's great, because you can immediately link them to small learning materials and provide highly personalized learning experiences! Of course, each atom may have prerequisites: For example, understanding the "SUM formula in Microsoft Excel" might require "opening a workbook in Microsoft Excel".

Atomic Skills = The building blocks of your skill-based learning strategy

Sounds like a lot of effort? 

But it's not! 

In the next section, I'll show you how to get started with your first actionable skill map.

Do I need to build my own atomic skill map?

Of course, you wouldn't build your own skill map from scratch. For some specific use cases, you could take full advantage of defining your own atoms and combine them into your own map. But I promise you that won't be the case for most applications in your organization. So I would definitely recommend you to start with an out of the box skill map for general skills that you can use from day one without having to put any extra effort into it.

From there, the teams we work with do two things:

  1. They connect it with their existing competency models, making it truly actionable for people development (e.g. competency "leading an agile team" maps to a series of leadership and agile skills in the system).
  2. They start quickly with a first prototype, and then iterate to step-by-step extend the map with their own, custom skills depending on their needs.

Today, there are quite a few vendors and I believe we will see many more of these out-of-the-box skill maps in the future (at edyoucated, our taxonomy includes several thousand skills for topics like digital transformation, soft skills, leadership and many more). Make sure you really examine potential skill maps in detail. Make sure you can expand them and drill down to the atomic level where it makes sense. If they stop at "Microsoft Excel" and do not break down further, you won't be able to use them to provide truly personalized learning paths for your employees.

And now that you understand the theory, let us start with the two most powerful use cases of how organizations are using these atomic skill maps in practice today (we will show you a few more use cases in later blog posts).

Use Case 1 - Atomic Learning meets Skill Assessments

For the first time in history, Atomic Skill Maps allow people (and learning platforms) to determine their skills on a completely new level of detail. Again, it's similar to the revolution that GPS brought to locating you on a map: today, it's very likely that your smartphone can accurately locate you within a radius of just a few meters, right? But not so long ago, you had to find your location in Paris on the map yourself, with obvious errors.

The same thing is happening now with learning. In a few years, if you start a training without knowing exactly your prior skill levels (at the atomic level), it will be much like someone telling you that they navigate with paper maps.

With intelligent assessment systems built on atomic skill maps, people will get an accurate skill profile within a few minutes, transparently showing all the skills they’ve already mastered. And also showing the skills they should develop further in order to be ready for a new project or an entirely new role within the organization. 

If you want to learn more about how this assessment works at edyoucated, check out our article on skill assessments. And if you are really in the mood for data science we recommend reading our blog on the data science behind skill assessments

Use Case 2: Help your learners find the best path via skill maps

But a skill assessment is usually just a means to an end, right? After all, we want to develop people and provide them with the right skills, learning materials and help exactly when they need it. We want to deliver tailored learning content that fits their goals, prior knowledge, and learning style.

Well, unfortunately, most online courses these days are just a giant black box. When you open your corporate learning platform and search for "Excel training" or "Data Analytics," we usually see that participants receive dozens (sometimes thousands) of course results and are completely overwhelmed choosing the right one. And even if they have started a course, the information about what skills it actually teaches is completely lost after completion because most providers do not feed information back into a central skill map and your personal skill profile.

Again, atomic skill maps are redefining the way learning works today. That's because you can actually map individual learning materials, quizzes, training (and anything else you can think of) to individual skill atoms. And once you have determined the skill gaps of the individual employee, intelligent learning platforms automatically determine which materials perfectly match to effectively teach this skill. 

The clients we work with today have seen a dramatic increase in learner engagement and have been able to use their time on average 40% more effectively (as about 40% of the content they already know is "personalized away," making room for new and more relevant learning activities). Again, powered by out-of-the-box atomic skill maps, that have been set up without any additional resources needed from the L&D side.

The future is about skills

I hope this post has given you a good overview of the key concept, benefits and use cases of Atomic Skill Maps. But of course, we could fill an entire book with it. It's a rapidly evolving, hot topic, and we are seeing many companies (both SMEs and large enterprises) starting to use their skill maps right now. So we are just getting started. Over the next few months, we will show you how some of the most successful companies have used atomic skill maps to dramatically improve their upskilling outcomes.

How is your company using skills and skill maps today? Curious to learn more about successful use cases and skill transformations? We have helped many clients implement skill-based learning to make their training more engaging, effective and measurable. If you'd like more information, I'd be happy to help.

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edyoucated is funded by leading research institutions such as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).

Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (BIBB)